Taking a Look

Monday, July 25, 2011

My Big, Fat Greek Disaster

Charlotte Bronte once said that life is so constructed that an event does not, cannot, and will not, match the expectation. For as much as I have studied the words of Miss Bronte over the past several years, I should have heeded her advice more carefully when I stepped off the ship in Athens, Greece. Then again, even if I had taken her wise words to heart, I should imagine that I would feel just as disappointed and frustrated as I feel now. For Greece, land of Olympian gods and mythological monsters, birthplace of democracy and free thinking, home of moussaka and gyros, has been thoroughly disenchanted.

Luckily, the wrath of Zeus did not descend upon me during my first day in Athens. Perhaps because I spent the day traveling back in time into an era where Zeus was still regarded as king of the gods instead of king of the postcards. The day began at the field where once stood Hadrian’s Arch and where now stands Hadrian’s Many Crumbling Columns and Large Chunks of Rock. This does not make what remains of the Arch any less impressive. Considering the Greeks constructed it 1,900 years ago I would say it’s holding up pretty well for its age. I have a feeling people won’t be paying five Euros to see my remains two millennia from now, so thumbs up to the Arch!

Fast forward about forty minutes, one gelato, and two aching feet later and there I am standing at the top of the ancient Athenian Acropolis. Most people assume that the Acropolis is the Parthenon, the ancient temple of Athena that sits at the top of the rather daunting hill you must climb. This is false; the term “Acropolis” refers to all of the ancient sites found on and around the small mountain on which the Parthenon overlooks Athens. So, on the way up, you can exhaust your digital camera to your heart’s content with the Temple to Nike, the Altar of Athena, the Sanctuary of Zeus, and the Theatre of Dionysus.  Eventually, you reach the Parthenon itself, which sits sternly at the top of the hill. A soft, Greek breeze touches your cheek as it weaves through the craggy columns. You blink through the pillars and see half-walls and cracked arches. As the people around you fight for nonexistent shade, you take a moment to soak up the feel of the Parthenon, perhaps cast your mind back to a time when the temple not only stood fully intact, but was also ornately painted and decorated for some primitive festival to Athena. 

If you can manage to do all of that, I tip my fedora to you. Because I couldn’t.  Don’t call me a spoiled brat just yet, though, because I did enjoy the Parthenon. I enjoyed the entire Acropolis. I found it to be an inspiring testament to how not only architecture, but culture and creativity, can last long after the creator is gone. It reminded me of the power of stories, which immortalize the storyteller as long as the tale keeps being told. The Parthenon is one epic story, keeping alive the history of ancient Greek religion, politics, and social studies. The problem is that all the chapters in this story are scattered about the world. As mighty as the Parthenon is, only about a third of the structure that currently watches over Greece’s capital is part of the original temple. A second third is housed in the Acropolis Museum, an impressive architectural feat all on its own, and the final third (mainly statues, sculptures, and archways) sit in the British Museum in London. Oopsie. Bearing this knowledge in mind, plus having to angle your camera around an entire wall of scaffolding while keeping your feet from wandering past the velvet ropes, makes it difficult to fully appreciate the Parthenon in its intended glory.  Like listening to every other word of a great speech. Or going to a baseball game that only plays two innings.

The Arch, the Acropolis, and the Museum, touristy though they may be, are well worth the trip to Athens. They do require a full day’s efforts, though. But as I rested my head in the back of a suspiciously creaky Greek taxi, listening to Lady GaGa’s “Judas” drift back to me from the radio, I found that our trip to Athens had been well worth it. Although apparently we just missed Hilary Clinton speaking at the Acropolis Museum. What the hell are you doing in Greece, Hilary? Their economy is worse than ours. Jeez.

SPEAKING OF the Greek economy, allow me a moment to enlighten you on the subject. I have no clue if word has reached the States or not, but it’s all anyone can talk about on this continent; the Greek economy is at an all time low. Some forty percent of the Greek people are unemployed, and the government is being accused of all sorts of corruption. The Greek people have spent the last several months rioting, protesting, and striking in order to get the government’s attention. Since members of the European Union have been hesitant to help Greece because of the severity of the situation, all hope of climbing out of this despair rests on the Greek Parliament. The citizens of Greece have felt ignored by Parliament, however, and the tension was mounting to a peak during the five days our little floating campus spent there. And we certainly felt the effects of the economic crisis first hand.

On Monday, our second day in Greece, the taxi companies organized a three day strike. To make their statement bolder, they proceeded to block in all of the buses the night before, effectively eliminating two major forms of transportation. As luck would have it (for them, not us) the metro system was down. There is still some confusion amongst the shipboard community as to whether or not the metro workers were striking, or if there were construction issues. Either way, it was day two in Athens and there was no way to get into, out of, or around all the major sites. 

Option B: the Greek islands. We were all going to do it up Mamma Mia style. Yeah, that worked out real well. My plan was to head to Mykonos and stay there for two days, then head back for my SAS sponsored trip to Olympia. One of my friends agreed to accompany me, but she was reluctant to take the early ferry on Monday morning, so I agreed to wait. Little did I know, the only other ferry running to Mykonos that day was at 5:45 pm. It takes four to five hours to get from Athens to Mykonos. So I twiddled my fingers for a day and schlepped through the giant port in Piraeus until I found the minuscule booth where I could purchase the ridiculously expensive one way ticket to the island.

So, right on schedule, we arrive at Mykonos around 10:00 pm, and that’s when it becomes public knowledge that oh hey, we don’t have hotel reservations. Fortunately for us, a swarm of pesky hostel owners waving Xeroxed pictures of their accommodations pasted on colored paper, descended upon us. Great! We can trust our lives to a total stranger, get cozy in the back of their trucks, and maybe donate an organ or two if we’re lucky. 

One woman emerged as being semi-presentable and not quite as shifty as the “hotel manager” who kept looking over his shoulder when the port police walked by. This woman assured my friend and I that she could provide us with a room that had a gorgeous view of the island, was close to town, and would be exactly what we paid for. Well, off we went. But not before picking up a pale, lanky Belgian couple that constantly kept their hands intertwined to accompany us. Oh how I love making new friends.

The first sign that this woman was lying came when she turned out of the port and started driving in the opposite direction of town. But I gave her the benefit of the doubt because, in her defense, there are technically two small towns on each side of Mykonos, so I just assumed we would be headed towards the other side. Well, we ended up at neither side. Her “hotel” was really just her house, smack dab in the middle of the island. I couldn’t even see downtown Mykonos from the balcony. The only other person we encountered as we jerked our way up the dirt road to her cottage was an old woman walking down the slope barefoot and carrying an empty grocery bag. And the island had just experienced a total black out. 

Where the hell was I?

It might have ended up being an exciting adventure, and something to laugh about later, if it weren’t for all of the logistical problems that arose. For one thing, if we went into town to go out at night, how the hell were we going to get back? There are less than thirty taxis that patrol the entire island of Mykonos, and most will not take you anywhere unless you have a full party. This did not bode well for our dynamic duo situation. We attempted to get in touch with a friend of ours who had offered to let us crash in their hotel room prior to Greece, but the reception on the Skype call didn’t go through, and my phone refused to send a text message, so that was a bust and a half.

Eventually we sucked it up and asked if the woman would not mind if we stayed somewhere else. She was kind enough to return us to the port, where we could catch the bus. Enter unsettling and jaunting revelation number two: we did not have enough Euros for the bus. And how far is the port from the town, you ask? Why, it’s a forty minute walk, my dears. How do I know this? Because I walked it.

In retrospect, walking into town was an idiotic move on my part. At this point, it was close to midnight, if not already past, and all of the hostels, motels, and hotels were booked for the evening. People kept telling us that reservations for the evening were always taken in the morning. SHOCKING. If only we had taken the morning ferry…

After the hotel quest proved fruitless, we hit the ATM and got in line for the taxi service. Sucking it up and returning to the woman’s house was better than nothing, right? After we begged her to let us stay the night, we could organize a new plan of action in the morning, hopefully find our friends, and get this Mykonos trip back to a functional level. But! (que drum roll) unsettling and jaunting revelation number three stole the show! I had to be back for my trip to Olympia on Wednesday morning, which meant we would have to leave Mykonos tomorrow (meaning Tuesday) afternoon so that I could get back. AWESOME.

An hour and a half later we secured a taxi (out of nowhere, the Belgian couple showed up and shared it with us) and returned to the woman’s house.  The Belgian couple snaked up to their room the minute we got dropped off, and my friend and I swallowed our pride and started knocking on the darkened door of what we were sure was our hostess’s room. No answer. We tried another door. No answer. We called her from the number she provided. No answer. We called her cell. No answer. We didn’t even hearing ringing from inside the house. You could imagine how I must have been beaming with joy at this moment, right?

The only thing left to do was to walk back into town and pray that we could find somewhere with a spare room. As we took the walk back into Mykonos I kept thinking that all we needed was a donkey and then our own little Christmas pageant would be complete. 

But I guess that story can only happen once in the course of history, because we did not end up staying in a stable that night. Around three in the morning (or perhaps it was closer to four) we wandered into a hotel lobby and practically collapsed at the front desk as we pleaded for a room. Zeus was feeling grateful, and something was available. I looked at my friend with what I imagined were bloodshot eyes and she looked right into them and said “I’m not comfortable paying for half of this room.”

Explosion. Credit card. Bill. Key. Shower. Bed. Out.


Things always appear better in the morning. So they say. I call bullshit. If anything, things appear much, much worse in the morning. “Oh my God, why did I do that?” “What the hell was I thinking?” “Did that honestly happen? Ugh.” 

In order to keep up the continuity of all events on Mykonos, we slept through checkout. Naturally, right? The angels had entered our story, however, because the staff didn’t charge us extra, and they kept breakfast waiting. I would imagine it was out of pity rather than hospitality, but I’ve never had a better plate of scrambled eggs in my life. We returned to Athens on the two o’clock ferry and declared that we would put this episode behind us and salvage whatever we could of Greece. 

That plan did not match up with the Greek’s plan however. Because the strikes continued, and this time the ferries joined the ranks. Uh. Oh. No buses, no taxis, no metro, no ferries. No will to continue on in Greece. No trip. And at some point in there I got sick and threw up for two hours in our closet-bathroom.  But at that point, it was practically expected. I recall having a moment, in between hurls, where I thought “Oh, right, this is what happens at this point.”

I will say this for Greece: I applaud it for having an English speaking theater that allowed me to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and successfully complete my childhood. I could spend an entire post paying homage to the series and how it has affected my life and holds the specialist, most sincerest (words?) part of my heart and how I laughed and cried and clapped and hugged it all out during the credits, but I won’t bore anyone with such nonsense. Just this: Harry Potter may be over, but it will never end.

By the grace of God, Greece, on the other hand, did end. When I have enough distance from the country and from the experience, I will probably look back and laugh at everything that happened. Until then, Greece can keep its beheaded statues and gun-wielding protesters, its striking transportation workers and creepy hostel matrons, and its unfriendly people and rude shop owners (be forewarned, Greeks HATE Americans). 

Though I have no desire to think or speak of Greece for the next several months, I can’t help but wonder how it would have gone if I did not have any expectations for it. Greece was “Greece,” you know? I feel that I could not help but form expectations on that silly little notion alone. But, if I have learned anything since December of last year, it’s that I must stop having expectations, because inevitably, I shall end up disappointed. I can’t expect to visit seven countries in a row and enjoy all of them, because each place is completely different than the last. I can’t expect those I care about at home to fully understand how much this experience means to me, because they are not me. Likewise, I can’t expect my friends here on the ship to fully understand why I do not want to return home in August, because they didn’t know me in December and February and, luckily, in March. 

There are all sorts of horrible expectations out there that we all fall prey to, these giant Greeces that we assume will turn out exactly how we envision them. But the sad truth of the matter is, the more you expect, the more you stand to lose. You can’t expect me to relay every detail of this summer to you, because how could I? I can’t expect you want to know every detail of this summer, because how could you? 

You can’t expect a voyage to heal all the hurt that you carry, because in reality it’s “out of sight, out of mind” coming into play, and nothing more. You can’t expect the man who once treated you with respect to always do so, because you are more easily replaced than you thought. You can’t expect those around you to fulfill the promises they once made, because even deans are capable of lying. You can’t expect people to sympathize with your disappointment, because it’s your own damn fault you didn’t make the best of the situation. You can’t expect to truly escape, because man has placed the world in his pocket, and there is no where left to run.

You can’t expect to look in the mirror and smile, when it’s all you can do to look at all.

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world—that is the myth of the atomic age—as in being able to remake ourselves”—Gandhi

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Passing Through Enchantment

Once Upon a Time…they said there existed a Garden that was meant to be the picture of earthly perfection. They said that man has been forever banished from this Garden, and that searching for it, assuming it really existed, is a fool’s errand. I say, stop wasting time looking and schedule immediate plans to visit Croatia. There, in the gentle fortress that is Dubrovnik, you will find Paradise.

For as deeply as my heart has become tied to Dubrovnik, my time in Croatia did not begin there, aside from the obvious fact that we were docked in their port. On our first day there, I was quickly whisked away to a small Croatian village, hidden in the mountains of the country’s rocky coast. There, we were greeted by a local couple who invited us into their home for food, drink, and traditional folk dancing. After taking a customary shot of brandy, and sipping a tall glass of homemade red wine, I sat down under a canopy of grape vines to watch the man charmingly wave his arm across a fiddle-like instrument while our hostess gracefully slid into an accompanying one-two step. By the time I was down to the dregs of the wine, we were all moving about in a friendly circle of limbs, attempting to master the simple yet elusive pattern.

Home (to the ship that is) by dinner, it was time to venture into Dubrovnik, or, as the locals refer to it, the Old City. Shower, shave, phone tag, GO! Ah, but wait. Despite its desire to, Croatia is not part of the Eurozone. This throws all of us off, as now we must discover the new exchange rate between the dollar and the Kuna, Croatian currency. It turns out the Kuna is worth 5.18 American dollars. No wonder the Croats are switching to the Euro next year. We swoop down on the nearest ATM, fill our pockets with pictures of Croat legendaries, and squeeze onto the bus.

It grinds up a deserted hill to roar to a stop that surprises us. Why isn’t it bustling with throngs of off -white spectators in I Heart Croatia t-shirts? They are nowhere to be seen. Instead, harmonious Croat tongue bounces around the empty space. But we know that we are in the right place. Ahead lies the towering stone gateway, and, a bit thrown off, we drift through. 

The minute we pass under the drawbridge and down the giant marble steps, into the actual city itself, delighted voices and melodic chirping greet our ears, the sweet salt of the sea tangs our noses, and our eyes swim in a million different directions. Some of us take in the pristine cobblestone streets, polished and glimmering in the orange afterglow of the evening. Some of us become absorbed in the colorful embrace of all the knotted vines and bursting flowers. Marigold, primrose, smiling violet. Still some of us are drawn to the enormous rotund fountain in the square to our right, where children take turns squirting each other from the running spouts, couples lazily share a water bottle, and a wrinkled man sits and plays the harmonica—a screechy, off key, rich sound. Grateful listeners drop Kuna into a spotted hat and we silently stare at one another. There is no way this is real.

And yet, we discover, it is. This is no façade. It’s not a tourist trap, a front, or a scam. It’s actually Dubrovnik. There is movement and interaction all along the main street. Relaxed wanderers flow into the side avenues, and despite the activity, there is very little noise. That’s when it occurs to me that I don’t think I was ever in a city where I wasn’t worrying about getting mauled by a car. They are not permitted inside the walls that constitute the Old City of Dubrovnik, which is the vast majority of the city. 

As we meander, we pick up pieces of conversations here and there, eventually determining that hvala means thank you. Tiny bookstores, cramped boutiques, and small bars are all buzzing with friendly greetings and cheerful goodbyes. The churches that rival St. Peter’s intermix with the tall apartment buildings decorated with clotheslines and old glass bottles. The restaurants and bars sit side by side with the brick cottages and family run knick knack shops. Such beautiful pearls. Dubrovnik, the Pearl of the Adriatic, they say.

Further along, the air gets crisper and whispers as it guides us to the nightclubs and beach bars. Walking by the rocky cliffs, we begin to hear intermittent screams from below that overpower the crash of the waves. First comes the chant, “One, two…THREE!” then the yelp, the distant splash, and the crowd roars. Several bars, all in a row, allow you to sit and enjoy cocktails on a veranda, and then strut right up to the cliffs they are perched on, and jump. 

This is Dubrovnik. But the beauty extends well beyond the ancient stone wall. The manmade splendor of the city is a reflection of the natural magnificence of the Croatian landscape. Royal blue is a cheap imitation of the peaceful water; forest green a desperate attempt to imitate the tall pines on the Croatian mountains. A cloud never touched the sky here, and the sun embraced us all. The flowers that grew on the hillside weaved their way down to the city and slithered up through every crack and crevice they could find, draping the old wall in a mossy green overcoat. 

Italy may have held restorative powers, but Croatia is the epicenter of all relaxation. The experiences described above, which happened during out first day in port, continued throughout our entire time in the Slavic nation. It was impossible not to be at peace with yourself, those around you, and any situation you encountered. We just missed the proper bus at 3:30 in the morning? So what! Let’s listen to that band across the street playing Croatian melodies. 

Dubrovnik was safe, entertaining, manageable, and calming. It was inspiring to travel and learn about a place that bears such a sad and brutal history, but has come out strong and revitalized, maintaining its cultural roots and ethereal beauty throughout all of the recent struggles. It’s hard to imagine any sort of violence happening in the quiet countryside of Croatia when you are kayaking around the harbor, taking in the beaches and the giant rocks and waving to people as they hang out their laundry. Everyone seems so at peace. 

I don’t know why more people don’t talk about Croatia. It’s a place with a fantastic culture, friendly people, and an inspiring story. The turmoil and devastation of the early 1990’s is still in the minds of the Croat people, yes; but they have turned their pain into something magnificent and built their country into what they have always wanted it to be. For me, this speaks volumes. 

I have begun what I have found to be a rather difficult healing process, but a healing process none the less. From what? That’s another post entirely. Everyone has a person or persons who inspires them, but I have found from my time in Croatia that I am inspired by an entire nation. Or at least, this nation’s story. Again, my love of stories has found its way into a post, but I cannot emphasize how important the telling of stories is to our existence. There is a reason the It Gets Better project is compiled of hundreds and thousands of videos and short stories, and not just one single inspirational speech or video. Stories entertain, inspire, challenge, and, perhaps the most important, revive. A good story can rebuild anything: confidence, hope, a broken heart. Croatia tells a very good story. Try it sometime, if you don’t believe me. 

Croatia is a fairy tale come to life, hidden away on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. When you arrive there, you become part of the tale—you experience new adventures, strange yet alluring concoctions, magical lands, quirky characters, and, if you do it right, your own happy ending. 

I can’t say that I lived happily ever after, but I certainly left happily ever after.

“Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than the love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole”—Derek Walcott

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Conscience Calmed

How brief I wish to make this blog about Italy. Everything you have heard about Italy is true, truer than you can imagine. Italy is a breathing Narnia, and it should be experienced and embraced, not written about with such mediocre description.  But my gut is kicking at me with a steady pounding, forcing me to produce something, since I myself loved reading about Italy before actually touching my toes to it.

If you know your history, you will know that once the European elite began to travel for pleasure and for education, sometimes for months at a time—the so called “Grand Tour” of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign—Italy gained a reputation as a land with healing properties.  Some attributed it to the climate, others to the culture, and almost everyone agreed that the secret medicine was, in fact, the food.  I am inclined to combine them all, for Italy slowly but surely changes you, without your own conscious knowledge, from the second you arrive to the moment you wave goodbye to the fading Tuscan coast on the horizon.

I should make clear that there is one exception to the grandeur of Italy. As every family has a black sheep, so Italy has a black town: the city of Naples. Six years ago, when I came to Italy for the first time, our tour group did not make it to Naples; if only I could have said the same for this voyage. Naples is like the Detroit of Italy. It’s just no longer necessary.

The morning when we arrived in Naples, I looked out the window in my cabin to see shoestrings, an empty McDonald’s cup, clumps of hair, and gum lapping up against the side of our ship. And we weren’t even docked that close to the shoreline. It’s hard to tell where water and land meet in Naples, because trash covers the surface of everything. My advice to anyone who finds themselves in Naples in the near future is to look up, and never look down. There are some intricate architectural pieces and places to check out, but almost all the other monuments are wearing coats of graffiti. I have to say, when you are trying to immerse yourself in Italian culture or mentally wonder back to the days of the Romans, seeing “FUCK” spray painted on castle walls and across stone generals’ faces, the ambiance is effectively ruined.

Don’t blame the people of Naples though, at least not the majority of them. It’s not like they wake up every morning and say “Hey, I think I’ll take a shit in the old palace courtyard today,” or anything like that. The city is suffering a legitimate trash crisis and, as cliché as it might sound, it’s all because of the Mafia. All kidding aside, the Mafia’s presence is very real in Italy. And very far reaching. As part of our pre-port for Naples, when we were being briefed on the politics of the city, we were told that members of the Mafia had gained so much power in Naples that they controlled all of the trash collection businesses, and were withholding cleanup efforts in order to create chaos in the city, for organized crime thrives under chaotic circumstances. 

You think Triple A Travel will hire me after all that? I can really sell a city, huh? 

I will say that it is worth it to put up with all the grime and soot for a couple days, because Naples is the gateway to the stunning volcano Mount Vesuvius, as well as the nearest city to the arcane ruins of Pompeii, in the shadows of the mountain. I didn’t make it out to Pompeii this time around, as I spent an entire day there on my last trek around Italy, but it is an incredibly captivating site even if you are not all that interested in history. You can literally see the food on the table that people were preparing when the city was destroyed, but simultaneously preserved, in the eruption of 79 AD. You can pet the mold of the dog that just couldn’t bite through his chain when the lava hit, and walk through the doors thousands of people found blocked by ash and fire all those centuries ago. It’s also one of the only places I know where a bunch of people can get together in a room and look at pornography without violating some sort of social taboo.* So, you know, if you’re into that kind of group stuff..

This time around, I towered over Pompeii rather than walked through its sustained streets.  Climbing Mount Vesuvius was by far the most physically exhilarating experience of my life thus far. I had never scaled a mountain before (I can barely manage the uphill walk from Meadville to Allegheny’s campus) and didn’t really know how I was going to somehow finagle my way up to the crater. Good thing I live in 2011 and buses exist. Ok, yeah, we cheated for the first 3000 feet, but after that they practically dump you until a pile of ash, hand you a ticket for the gate, and wave goodbye as you stare up at the last one thousand feet like a mute.

Needless to say, I made it. By myself. On my own. Me. 

When you reach the top they offer to stamp a piece of paper or a postcard to prove that you made it (in case everyone at home doesn’t believe in pictures or something) and there is a small stand where some residents of a nearby town have fashioned different artifacts from the ash of Vesuvius. Other than that, you are free to wander the rim of the crater and take in the view. 

I’m not sure where the calming feeling comes from, when I am up high, but it absolutely smothered me at the top of that mountain. All of my senses suddenly changed, as if they were adapting to the shift in atmosphere. Looking out at the Amalfi coast, I didn’t hear the labored breathing of those behind me who thumped up the last few steps; instead I heard the leaves scratching against each other on the trees that sprouted between the crags. I didn’t feel the beads of sweat racing each other down my sideburns; I felt the tickle of the ashy ground on my feet. I didn’t see people suckling their water bottles; I saw black snowflakes clinging delicately to my arm hair. I didn’t taste the desert on my tongue; instead I tasted the sweet spice of Vesuvian air. I didn’t smell dirt and dried blood; I smelled rock, wet from the mist of the fog that weaved in and out around the mountain’s peak. 

My heart responded to this moment, there at the top of one of the four most dangerous volcanoes in the world.  I felt the thumping in my chest slow to a gentle pulse, the blood in my veins glide slow instead of run fast. And no, it wasn’t because of the change in altitude. It was because I was standing on the edge of an active volcano. That I had climbed. Alone. Without assistance. It was because that moment, up there, was mine.

Not to sound unpatriotic or anything, but that was the most emotional Fourth of July I’ve ever had. No question.
By that evening, I was watching the mighty Vesuvius shrink into a mole hill as we sailed for Civitavecchia, the port city that shuttled us to Rome. I began thinking how I had a new understanding for why Italy bears this reputation of being a medicinal nation, and how I had been so afraid that perhaps, in short of all my grand expectations, this voyage would not heal me. The wounds, both inner and outer, would not mend. I had reassured myself, not to mention those I left behind at home, that this was it: after these few months I would be my old self again. Taller than bigotry. Stronger than ignorance. Wiser than harassment. But it wasn’t happening. There was progress, yes; moments I moved forward, absolutely, but there was no major shift in my mental state all throughout the Atlantic crossing, and my time in Spain. Not until the (literal) mountaintop experience at Vesuvius. Oh how I detest that I am now a cliché. 

But yes, that was when my fear began to subside. Or, rather, to change. Into something different. Into hope. Fear and hope are not so different at their cores. “Twin Destinies” the poet Shelley calls them. They are your feelings and emotions about the future; how you perceive what is still to come. One can fret and distress over the potentially difficult hardships on the horizon, or one can adopt a more optimistic sense of looking forward to both the rewards and challenges of living. For so long I had been living in fear, I saw no convincing evidence to think otherwise, but I could feel the tides turning inside me as I watched Naples disappear and turned my gaze forward, to the Eternal City.

Sure enough, my “Aha” moment did arrive in Rome. Though not, I must say, in a clichéd or overused location this time. One might expect profound moments of inner discovery and self-reflection to occur at grandiose Roman destinations like...the Vatican. If you are one of those people, you have clearly never been to the Vatican.

I have now, being lucky enough to have explored Italy twice since I was fourteen, been to the Vatican two times as well. I have no desire to see if three times is the charm for the center of the Catholicism.  When you enter the Vatican, you literally become a sheep in the largest, sweatiest, loudest, most irritating flock this side of the Atlantic. The Pope himself could not shepherd this mass into obedience, and he wasn’t even there. It was too hot for him, so he peaced to his summer home. Which is also in Italy…….Catholic logic. I love it.

To begin with, there are so many damn rooms in the Vatican museum, with artifacts and statues and paintings and busts and a whole mess of saintly crap all piled on top of each other, that it would take something like twenty-five years to look at everything for five seconds each. We were fortunate if we got to stand in one place for three. You get herded from chamber to chamber by the crankiest security guards (national police perhaps in this case?) that I have ever met. Judging by their looks I think we woke them up from nap time when we arrived. Anyway, they are constantly glaring at you and patting the firearms at their sides so you won’t forget their divine right to shoot you full of holes if you touch the altar you were only supposed to take a picture of, or take a picture of the fountain you were only supposed to touch.

Not that you have time to get your bearings and figure out what you are and are not allowed to touch in each section. This is due to the fact that once you enter the Vatican museum you instantly find yourself in the natural habitat of the infamous tourist. A people of pale skin, occasionally identifiable by multiple layers of caked on sun screen, the tourist will make its way towards you. Unlike other creatures, if you don’t bother it, it will bother you. Generally this occurs when the tourist makes use of its hands; one is used to swing a camera on a string around their neck back and forth, and the other gesticulates, waves, points, and flaps about in attempted communication with the stoic shepherd-guards. 

At the Vatican, the tourist tend to travel in packs. This we understand because they don jewel-colored shirts emblazoned with certain descriptions of their pack, like the name of their troupe or “Family Reunion 2011.” This is as much for their own identification, as well as for outsiders. The more well off packs utilize walkie talkies, but the majority rely on their exceptionally loud vocal chords. While in the Vatican, tourists can be spotted anywhere, but you might try finding them getting impatient in lines, creating traffic jams to take pictures of that thing they saw in a book once, or otherwise walking very quickly in a space where such movement is disruptive to all present. An interesting phenomenon occurs when they pass dilapidated statues and half-completed sculptures: It must be something important—let’s take a picture! Say cheese, oh, I mean ‘formaggio.’ Tourists are always happy to use of the many Italian phrases they have picked up along the way. As they clutch their belongings into their cleavage, wary of the pickpocket (the tourist’s natural enemy) they can often be heard saying “When in Rome…” without finishing the sentence. 

Have I expressed myself clearly? Very good. Moving on.

I finally understood that I was beginning to heal from the pain in my heart while sitting in a dusty, cramped library during my last afternoon in Rome. I spent it on a small trip with a friend and one of my teacher’s at the Keats-Shelley House, next to the Spanish Steps. Only an out and proud English nerd such as myself could appreciate the momentous privilege of walking where Keats walked, hearing his story in the very rooms it unfolded in, reading the poems under the roof he composed them, and visiting the quiet corner of the world where he now rests. I won’t go into detail about the house or why it is significant, because very few people out there will care, but something during my time there woke me up. My brain shifted and fell in line with my heart, and I found myself believing, actually believing, that I could find peace on this voyage, and in my life. I had fallen prey to the spell of Italy. The healing has begun.

I could go on and on in this blog to help you understand the enchantment you fall under while staying in Italy. I could assure you that American ice cream is simply a cheap imitation of Italian gelato, and that no matter where pizza originated (Manhattan or Italy) nothing will ever taste better than an Italian pizza margherita. I could express my firm belief that no matter where you travel in the United States, the Italian countryside will trump even our best efforts at natural loveliness. But that would be a disgrace to Italy, because I don’t have the word prowess to accomplish such a task. 

So that really only leaves you one choice: make your way to Italy. Even if you don’t feel as though you need to be healed, I guarantee that no matter what you do, you feel leave feeling tranquil. Serene. 


*To elaborate, there is a room in the ruins of Pompeii covered with stone penises and frescoes of erotic images. Apparently, displaying a penis in the home or a public building was a sign of good luck. Take that as you will.

“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are” –Samuel Johnson